Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mrs. Kelley and the Sweet ‘Tater Eddy


Mrs. Kelly and her son Teddy, who was killed in WW ll

       Myrtle Kelly was old, probably in her mid-seventies.  That doesn’t seem old now but it did then, when I was only 12 or 13. Like the old men in Dad’s pool hall, Mrs. Kelly was my friend… what a wonderful lady! A kid who spends so much time as I did in a pool hall has lots of friends who are old. I didn’t have many friends my own age. I came from a poor family, didn’t make good grades and wasn’t athletic enough to throw a football or shoot a basketball. Talk about a kid with three strikes against him! But I could fish and hunt and paddle a johnboat, and that made me worth something.

       Mrs. Kelly lived in a little farmhouse about six miles west of town on the best stretch of the Big Piney River. She and her husband Fred had been long-time friends of my grandmother and grandfather. They would set trotlines for catfish on the river, and play cards together and help each other whenever the need was there. Grandpa made sassafras paddles and a wooden johnboat for them every few years and it was kept chained up down on the river.

       When I knew her, Mrs. Kelley was lonely and cranky and sour at times.  She had lost her husband about ten years before, and her one son, Teddy, who had joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in World War Two, was killed piloting a fighter plane over the English Channel.

       I showed up at her little farmhouse often to use her johnboat to fish the river. I would ride my bicycle from home, five or six miles away, down that gravel road which ended at her place, my rod and reel and a handful of old worn-out lures and hooks, sinkers and bobbers tied to the handlebars. Behind her barn I could dig night-crawlers with her pitchfork or acquire some minnows down in the river with one of those old glass minnow traps

       Small and wiry, Mrs. Kelly told me one day, as she met me with a can of night-crawlers, that she was tired of working and decided she would go fishing with me. Cynical and cranky as always, she was the boss in the boat, telling me just where she wanted to fish. If there was one thing I was good at it was handling a johnboat, so she never had to pick up a paddle. For several summers we would go up and down the river and tie up to a log or root wad here and there, hauling in stringers of black perch, goggle-eye and bass.

       I remember with amusement how she had little use for modern ways, nor politicians. She and my grandmother were close, but she had little good to say about my grandfather. She said he was one of the smartest and most talented men she had ever known but he was also the most obstinate and ‘hard-to-get- along-with’ man there ever was on the Piney.  Every now and then she would get a little perturbed by something I did and would shake her head and declare that I was going to be just like him unless she could help me change my ways. But every now and then I would say or do something to make her smile and she would turn her head to make sure I couldn’t see it.

       If I had to ride my bike home after dark then I had to call her and tell her I had made it home safely. I always I insisted on carrying the string of fish up to her barn. I was starting to develop some pretty good shoulders and arms from paddling johnboats, and strong legs from peddling that bicycle. Inside the barn, one summer, I started to show her some new way to clean fish and I saw the tears in her eyes. She told me that I made her think of her son Teddy when he was a young boy.

       When I was 15, Mrs. Kelly’s niece came over from Oklahoma to visit for a week and I took her goggle-eye fishing one summer afternoon. I climbed the hill that evening in love. I had been in love several times since I was in the third grade but that afternoon I had actually talked to the girl I was in love with! Mrs. Kelly looked at our happy faces and went with us on the next couple of fishing trips, probably a wise thing to do.

       Just out of high school at the age of 17, I started to college at School of the Ozarks a week later, but I would come home on summer weekends to guide fishermen on the Piney, or work in the hayfields, and I would usually find time to visit Mrs. Kelly. I brought her some Taneycomo trout a couple of times that summer. She was no longer as enthused about fishing.

       I met a girl named Linda from nearby Cabool that summer and fell in love again. So later, as fall approached, I took Linda to meet Mrs. Kelly, and take her fishing in Grandpa’s johnboat tied up down on the river. I invited Mrs. Kelly to join us but she just shook her head and smiled. She told me that she was getting too old for that.

       “That little boy who paddled me up and down the river has grown up,” she said. “And I didn’t change you a bit. I’m afraid you are going to be Fred Dablemont’s grandson for good.”

       Later, I got a big beautiful photo from Mrs. Kelly in the mail that she had taken without me knowing it, a picture of my girlfriend and I down on the river where I had taken the old lady fishing so often, right near the sweet ‘tater cave. I have it in my office today. A year or so later she passed away and I didn’t get to attend her funeral. It was weeks before I knew it.

       I don’t know if there’s fishing in heaven, but I know that her husband Fred and son Teddy was waiting. And I am sure she isn’t cranky any longer.

Contact me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo or email…. Office phone, 417 777 5227.

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